Deadlines Are Good But Not All Deadlines Are Good Deadlines

Yes, that’s a photo of a bunch of trash coated in acrylic gesso.

Here’s why this topic came up: At the end of January a long time collaborator and I stumbled onto a musical writing retreat opportunity online. Since graduating we haven’t been aggressively pursuing any joint ventures, more teasing ideas before striking out on our own to publish individually and poke at grad school applications. And realizing, firstly, that we were completely capable of finishing a musical with material we already had, and, secondly, that the retreat application deadline was rapidly approaching, we we’re able to hurl ourselves into the creative frenzy that I, at least, live for.

To sum up: Having a deadline forced us to take a Google Folder full of stuff, solidify what was material (and what was waste), crystallize our vision, boil it down to essentials an outside party could evaluate, and make a solid timeline for continued progress. At this rate we’ll actually finish the work instead of letting languish in the “maybe” cave.

Admittedly, after we submitted we did some more research and realized the competition level of this retreat might be slightly out of our league. Which was one of those inevitable stomach-drops in the life of a project. However, our recruited references agreed with us that just doing the application was an net benefit. We better understand what we’re capable of- more importantly, how to communicate what we’re capable of- and EVEN MORE importantly, got off our digital asses to *Do Something*. Regardless of if we’re honored with the opportunity or not, I stand by the material we produced. Because I think it’s good. And I think it’s honest, in terms of where we are.

But all these shenanigans got me thinking about deadlines. This was, inarguably, a Very Good Deadline Experience. And frequently, like with the book I published in November, even if I’m the only one enforcing the deadline, it’s existence is necessary to finish work that might otherwise be abandoned because “I just have to think about it” or whatever. Deadlines mean the weird amorphous time-shapes of life are forced into assessable boxes with clear beginnings and ends and equally clear labor priorities. I like them. They like me. We’re friends.

Still, there are such things as bad deadlines. To clarify, any one person’s good deadline can be another person’s bad deadline. There is no deadline that is “always bad”. But in my experience, bad deadlines are not so much date/time oriented benchmarks by which to measure project results. I find they’re frequently emotionally motivated, with unclear ways to measure progress, require an unrealistic amount of individual effort or take place in an unrealistic timeframe, and ultimately remove an amount of agency from the participant.

For example, in my childhood diary- which I recently rediscovered- there’s an entry from early 2011 dead set that “I will be a published author by the time I’m 21.” Tiny Susanna couldn’t have known at the time, but this deadline was bad. This isn’t to say other humans haven’t been published at that age or younger. But Tiny Susanna had given herself an all or nothing situation without tools to achieve. She wasn’t motivated by a particular project she wanted to bring to the public. She was motivated by the status of “being published”- IE attention. Critically, she didn’t add smaller goals (“Write a paragraph by next week”) before the deadline in order to evaluate as she went. And the deadline was -to her- at the end of a massive span of inconceivably long time. It set her up to have no clear ideas, timeline, accountability, and ultimately to feel dissatisfied and underachieved in her teens when all she’d really done was declare she was going to dig The Biggest hole without a shovel, hands, or a way to check how big the hole was getting. No wonder the hole wasn’t dug.

(You can imagine the irony of rediscovering this diary passage in September of 2021, which I had known since May was going to be the bellwether for if the Red Book for an Angry Night would be publishable before January 2022. At the time, it was clear skies, but even so there were hiccups).

Basically, deadlines can be external challenges that un-stagnate the stagnant, but they can also be meaningless shame sticks we beat ourselves with. And the only difference in my opinion is if, when setting the deadline, we have give ourselves smaller toolkits to deploy as we go.

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